December 4, 2023
Despite three-game skid, it’s not time to sound the alarm on North Carolina just yet
Banghart: "We’re not good enough yet, individually or collectively, but we’re made of the right stuff"
Heading into Week 4 of the 2023–24 season, North Carolina women’s basketball appeared dangerously close to letting an early-season skid turn into a slide that could prove difficult to bounce back from. After checking in at No. 16 in the preseason AP poll, North Carolina has fallen in the rankings to No. 17, 18 and now 24 (Weeks 4 and 5). The Tar Heels suffered two consecutive losses at the Gulf Coast Showcase after barely escaping Vermont in the previous game, and many predicted that the team was slated for a blowout loss when it next faced No. 1 South Carolina in the ACC/SEC Challenge.
But on Thursday, North Carolina proved that the team still had plenty of fight left in it when the Tar Heels held the Gamecocks to a season-low 65 points despite losing the game by a narrow margin.
“When we were in Florida, that was not the team that we are,” said head coach Courtney Banghart post-game. “This is the team that I recognize.”
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Putting on a defensive masterclass
Unlike in its past few games against Vermont, Kansas State and Florida Gulf Coast, North Carolina stepped up to meet South Carolina. The Tar Heels’ intensity was greater than anything they had been able to muster this season. From the opening tip, it appeared that UNC’s defense could dictate this game.
The Tar Heels forced the Gamecocks to turn the ball over in their first three possessions of the game. They limited South Carolina to just 10 points in the quarter and held them scoreless in the first 4.5 minutes of play. The Gamecocks’ frustration was evident; this isn’t a team that’s used to getting pushed around, and North Carolina’s ability to make such a dominant team uncomfortable by limiting its offensive opportunities and forcing it to go to its fourth, fifth and sixth options is the reason the Tar Heels’ defense is ranked second in the ACC. South Carolina has been ranked first in the AP poll for three consecutive weeks and ranked second in scoring offense in the NCAA coming into its game against North Carolina. Only one other team has held the Gamecocks below 100 points through five games.
Three key aspects of the game enabled the Tar Heels’ defense to thrive: triple-teaming in the post, preventing the Gamecocks from drawing fouls and defensive rebounding.
Standing at 6’7, South Carolina senior center Kamilla Cardoso has reigned terror over every team the Gamecocks have faced this season. Cardoso has averaged 12.1 rebounds, 15 points and 3.4 blocks per game in South Carolina’s 2023-24 campaign, but North Carolina limited her to just six points on the day by largely preventing her from getting touches at all. They constantly sent double-and-triple-teams her way, causing South Carolina to turn the ball over six times in just the first quarter as the Tar Heels made it nearly impossible to pass into the post. By virtually taking the Gamecocks’ leading scorer out of the game, North Carolina gave itself a fighting chance against the No. 2 scoring offense in the nation.
In defending South Carolina’s guards, the Tar Heels also excelled, specifically in the first half. The notoriously physical Gamecocks struggled to draw contact on North Carolina — the hosts played straight up defense, limiting South Carolina to just four visits to the charity stripe in the first half. Coming into its battle with the Tar Heels, South Carolina averaged 62.8 points in the paint per game, but North Carolina limited the team to just 20.
“We just kind of played UNC’s style and pace,” said South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley post-game. “I don’t really think we got down to what we do, we just beared down and got the win.”
The Tar Heels’ proven ability to take a team as physically dominant as the Gamecocks out of their comfort zone will undoubtedly be North Carolina’s most powerful asset going forward. South Carolina currently sits at No. 1 in blocks per game at 11.5 and leads the nation in defensive rebounds per game, making the Gamecocks a difficult team to handle on both ends of the floor. The way the Tar Heels contained Cardoso — who stands a whole four inches taller than North Carolina’s starting center Maria Gakdeng and ranks fifth in the nation with 24 total blocks this season — bodes well for upcoming matchups against other formidable ACC centers, like Virginia Tech’s Elizabeth Kitley. Beyond its ability to defend Cardoso when she had the ball, North Carolina’s ability to prevent passing into the post could greatly disrupt many opponents’ offenses; it takes away the option to use their post player as a distributor and limits opportunities to score down low.
Offensive setbacks kept the Tar Heels from overcoming the deficit
“These guys stuck to the defensive game plan as much as I could have asked,” Banghart said. “If you [showed] me that we would shoot 31% from two and 19% from three, I would’ve thought we’d lose by a lot.”
While Banghart’s compliments to the defense are flattering, she’s also highlighted a major hole in North Carolina’s offense: this team isn’t going far if it can’t make shots. Despite leading the team in points with 20 and 18, respectively, senior guard Deja Kelly and senior forward Alyssa Ustby both recorded a minus seven in terms of overall impact. In fact, the only Tar Heel that recorded a positive plus/minus was Gakdeng, with plus 12.
Their lack of efficiency became especially apparent in the second half, when too much dribbling by North Carolina’s guards and missed looks for the wide open post players rolling to the basket led to countless wasted opportunities.
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Tar Heels’ offensive weaknesses became increasingly clear in the final minutes of the game. Most notably, the team lacked the ability to get a quick score when it needs it most. This struggle showed in flashes throughout the game, as North Carolina committed shot clock violations or came dangerously close to it. This will be critical to control in future tight games, which the Tar Heels should expect plenty of in ACC play.
But Banghart didn’t seem too worried.
“I told them — win or lose, this doesn’t define you, but it shows you what you’re made of,” Banghart said. “And we’re made of the right stuff. We’re not good enough yet, individually or collectively, but we’re made of the right stuff.”
Luckily for North Carolina, if its battle against the Gamecocks proved anything it’s that this team is capable of hanging with the best of them, even with a lackluster offense. For now, North Carolina will have to count on its defense to win games as it works to build its confidence on the offensive end.
In its upcoming game against UConn, the Tar Heels will have another chance to prove themselves against a ranked squad.